He teaches Hebrew in Jewish schools in the United States, underwent an Orthodox conversion to Judaism and has been profiled in major Jewish newspapers everywhere (including Haaretz, on December 19, 2014). He was in Israel during Hanukkah as a special guest of the Jewish Film Festival held at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. But when Michael Twitty arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport to fly back to the U.S. he was interrogated rudely, his Judaism was called into question, his personal effects were taken from him – and he seethed with anger and humiliation.
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In 2007, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel went to court against the demeaning treatment meted out to non-Jews at Ben-Gurion Airport and at El Al check-in venues abroad. ACRI noted that the security checks to which Israel’s Arab citizens are subjected at airports are far more rigorous than those undergone by Jewish passengers, including those who are not Israeli citizens. The fact that a passenger is an Arab are apparently reason enough to subject him to a thorough check, even if there were no suspicions against him. ACRI requested that equal and substantive criteria be set for the scope and level of security checks for all passengers, Jewish and Arab alike. Earlier this year, the state announced that changes had been introduced in the method of security checks, but according to ACRI they do not remedy the problems it cited.
But it seems that Arabs are not the only “usual suspects.” During the check of Twitty he was separated from his partner, who is non-Jewish and white. He was asked the standard questions and allowed through, but Twitty’s story was just beginning. The security woman “asked me had I been to Israel before,” Twitty said in an email. “I replied that I had. She asked when and I answered honestly, 2004.” When she asked why I had visited then, “I replied [that] I came on Taglit [the Birthright project]. She immediately gave me an incredulous look.”
Twitty explained to her that he was Jewish. “She asked me why I was in Israel. I explained I was invited to the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, which could also be easily verified. She then asked what I did for a living, and I explained I was a food writer and taught Hebrew school in America. She really didn’t understand some of what I was telling her, and besides that her look changed to a tight disingenuous smile Both my friend and I deduced from her body language that she did not believe a word out of my mouth, she looked really disturbed, even worried. In fact, had she checked, she would have found out that I won a first-place essay prize from Birthright that year.”
The woman consulted with someone, and then a different agent, a man, came over and “asked me the standard security questions, rapid-fire. He asked me a lot of questions about who packed my bags and what was in my bags. He asked me even more questions to verify my Jewish identity. Did I speak Hebrew?... He asked me if I converted Orthodox, and I said yes." Twitty even showed his him pictures of his conversion certificate. "He asked ‘How did you get this? Who gave you this paper?’ He asked me what shul (synagogue) I belonged to and when I went there and for what purpose. Every few sentences he would reverse the order and re-ask the same questions... I used as many Hebrew/Jewish terms as I could muster.”
At the next stage of the check-in process, Twitty was questioned by a third security agent, “who did a short repeat interview of what I dealt with downstairs, only this time I was more adamant about being Jewish... He was adamant about re-asking the same questions about weapons and liquids and assumptions that I was working with someone. I didn’t get it.” Twitty noticed that “all of the Black people I saw that evening were in the same line [as I was], including an older African American woman in a wheelchair. There were several Arab or Muslim women in the same line.” Twitty’s bags did not arrive with him when he landed in the United States.
He adds, “This was a lovely trip to Israel before that moment I know that my experience was not uncommon and I know some groups get far more scrutiny, face detainment, imprisonment or worse. I was scared, upset and offended. I knew it wasn’t that bad in the larger scheme, but I was also keenly aware of the double standard based on color and appearance.” It felt, he says, “like someone had hit me with a bat in the stomach. It was just a reminder of how some people will never see me as Jewish I thought being a ‘guest of honor’ meant something.”
A spokesperson for the Airports Authority stated, “We regret the passenger’s feelings and are doing all we can to ensure the passengers’ safety and security.”